February 1, 2009

An almost great article about resisting normative families in the NYT

Posted in economics, family, gender, heteronormative, New York Times, reproduction at 6:44 pm by LB

This article in today’s Times is great…well, almost.  The article discusses the interesting and creative ways that middle class single mothers are successfully forming their own families of choice, made of up other families like them, who provide each other with emotional support and companionship, outside of the heteronormative nuclear family.

Some single mothers like Fran forgo romantic and sexual relationships for extended stretches, turning to one another for the help and companionship that spouses normally provide — filling up one another’s cellphone directories, thinking through whether to get speech therapy for a child who is talking late, snapping and sharing summer photos. They are friends, and also more than friends. The trips to the Outer Banks that Fran’s group takes represent a step toward an all-female, platonic, chosen extended family.

Cool, right?  Until this gem:

For a woman of means to have a baby without a husband seemed to threaten the institution of marriage and, with it, family stability.  Today’s single mothers by choice often do their utmost to prove that they’re not a threat to anyone’s social order, as Rosanna Hertz, a Wellesley College sociologist, points out in her study of 65 such women, “Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice.” After the award ceremony, Fran didn’t talk back to her pastor. For her, being a single mom isn’t a form of rebellion. She wants to share in middle-class norms, not challenge them. To spend time with Fran and her friend Nancy is to appreciate them as a couple of anti-bohemians: two middle-aged women in high-waisted jeans and tennis shoes, sitting and talking on folding chairs while soft rock and a mix of sweat and Lysol fills the air during their daughters’ Saturday-morning gymnastics class.

  1. Way to take the teeth out of a gesture that very much undermines the primacy of heteronormative families, which these mothers are doing whether that’s the way they see their behavior or not.  
  2. Way to conflate resisting normative structures with out and out intentional “rebellion”
  3. Way to reduce and stereotype cultural resistance to being “bohemian,” as if one can’t both be resisting normative family structures and be “two middle-aged women in high-waisted jeans and tennis shoes, sitting and talking on folding chairs while soft rock and a mix of sweat and Lysol fills the air during their daughters’ Saturday-morning gymnastics class.”  As if those who resist normative prescriptions cannot also be what we think of as “average” people in many other ways.  
  4. Way to make completely invisible the many women who are doing it as a conscious, resistant, rebellious practice.  

This is like the mainstreaming rhetoric about gay marriage all over again: don’t worry, we don’t want to disrupt your heteronormative, patriarchal, family relations. Really, “we” are just like “you.”

Bullshit.  The idea that a woman (or man) deliberately chooses to raise a family outside of heternormative nuclear family structure is itself a resistant practice.  The success of said families challenges the primacy of the married and heterosexual family.  Single parents by choice are in fact choosing a “path of least resistance” in our society that at every turn, compels marriage and marital families (or at least two-parent ones).  Thus the success of these families undermines the economic necessity of marital families, and the community of support by other doing the same undermines the social necessity as well.  The fact that these families are successful because of their economic/class position illuminates the ways that income disparity and class polarization has on one’s individual choices about family–and suggests that contra Bush’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families doctrine, single mothers need economic assistance, not marital assistance.  

Overall, the article presents several women who have chosen and planned to be single mothers, and emphasizes the importance of their chosen family.  These families are not lacking–they are financial secure, help each other, and share lots of love–all outside of the patriarchal division of labor and gender expectations in the family.  Financial dependence has long kept women tied to marriage.  As women’s financial and education situations are changing, so are the options available for women with regard to their families, as middle class men have long have long had the resources to take the route many women are now choosing to take.  

Even further is this piece: 

When I asked about men at the Chick-fil-A, there was a collective snort of laughter and a beat of pink-cheeked silence. Then Susan echoed what Fran told me earlier: “It’s just not part of our lives. What’s important is raising our children.”

The women are not only choosing to raise families on their own, but romantic relationships are not really on their radar.  They are rejecting the two areas of women’s lives which have historically served as areas of men’s entitlement: family and sex/intimacy.  These women are forgoing the latter in favor of the former–but the former outside of the heteronormative context.  And they don’t feel “incomplete” as women for it.  How isn’t this radical?  

I will likely be misunderstood to say that I am advocating that all heterosexual women leave men and become single mothers.  Not at all.  But when we can choose to have families independently of the social factors that compel us to form heterosexual marital families, won’t that be better for the intimate relationships we do form?  Don’t more possibilities for forming families lead to more possibilities for happiness that do not have to rely also on intimate relationships?   Don’t these possibilities apply to men as well as women?  Why can’t we recognize that the most important or centrally organizing thing in (heterosexual) women’s lives does not have to be a (male) partner?–we already recognize this possibility for men.

Regardless of their personal intention, these women are demonstrating that with the economic resources to do so, the heteronormative family is not the only option to raise healthy, happy, successful families, and to simultaneously have a happy and fulfilling life.  And that, if anything is, is truly threatening.



  1. onely said,

    Oh, it’s so frustrating to see articles like that, ones that start out with such a progressive potential and then all of a sudden can’t follow through with it. Baby steps, I guess! As you point out, those women *are* a threat to the prevailing social order, and good for them! They should be expected and encouraged to “talk back to their pastors” in defense of enlightened definitions of family and commitment.

  2. zooeyibz said,

    Terrific post. It is always encouraging and empowering to hear about women choosing to have children outside of the approved script, especially in the face of all that society, govt and the economic power structure do to make it difficult. Their children will undoubtedly be saner and happier for it.

  3. Jenni said,

    First blog I read after wakeup from sleep today!

    FREE Image Converter.!Convert just using right click.

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